Augmented Piano in Augmented Reality
Hong Kong Baptist University
Ho Sin Hang Campus
Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong
Augmented instruments have been a widely explored research
topic since the late 80s. The possibility to use sensors for
providing an input for sound processing/synthesis units let
composers and sound artist open up new ways for
experimentation. Augmented Reality, by rendering virtual
objects in the real world and by making those objects interactive
(via some sensor-generated input), provides a new frame for this
research field. In fact, the 3D visual feedback, delivering a
precise indication of the spatial configuration/function of each
virtual interface, can make the instrumental augmentation
process more intuitive for the interpreter and more resourceful
for a composer/creator: interfaces can change their behavior over
time, can be reshaped, activated or deactivated. Each of these
modifications can be made obvious to the performer by using
strategies of visual feedback. In addition, it is possible to
accurately sample space and to map it with differentiated
functions. Augmenting interfaces can also be considered a visual
expressive tool for the audience and designed accordingly: the
performer’s point of view (or another point of view provided by
an external camera) can be mirrored to a projector. This article
will show some example of different designs of AR piano
augmentation from the composition Studi sulla realtà nuova.
NIME, Augmented Reality, Augmented Instruments, Music
•Applied computing → Arts and humanities; Performing arts •
Applied computing → Arts and humanities; Sound and music
computing •Human-centered computing → Human computer
interaction (HCI) → Interaction techniques; Gestural input
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
From the end of the 80s, researchers started to explore the
possibilities of letting performers of acoustic instruments control
electronics (Augmented Instruments) or translate the virtuosity
of playing techniques in the digital domain (Hyperinstruments).
More in detail, innovative “approaches are possible with
‘augmented instruments’. First, sensors can be utilized to add
control possibilities that are not directly related to normal
playing techniques. For example, various buttons can be added
to the body of the instruments[…]. Second, sensors can be
applied to capture normal playing gestures”. In practice,
augmented instruments increase the control a performer can have
in performances implying electronics, by detecting his actions
through sensors or physical interfaces.
“The basic concept of a hyperinstrument is to take musical
performance data in some form, to process it through a series of
computer programs, and to generate a musical result. […] The
performer uses more-or-less traditional musical gestures, on a
more-or-less traditional musical instrument. The instrument
itself, however, is “virtual”, since the computer system
supporting it can redefine meaning and functionalities at any
point”. A similar concept can also be found in the definition
of Digital Instrument (for a detailed definition, see ).
Research on Augmented Instruments and Hyperinstruments is
essentially based on the idea of integrating electronic systems
inside the musical performance with the aim to overcome the
distinction between electronic processing (computer-generated
music) and acoustic/gestural/human playing. The use of sensors
or of newly designed interfaces for sound synthesis and
parametric control of signal processing were developed in order
to deliver a real-time (and usually intuitive) control over
electronic sound production.
The newest possibilities offered by the means of VR and AR
can further expand this kind of research, while providing a new,
A good number of applications have already been developed
in the domain of digital VR Instruments . For example,
ChromaChord  allows the user to play virtual interfaces by
using LeapMotion and Oculus Rift: colored blocked generated
pitches when the hands of the user collide with those virtual
objects. Another example is the Synesthesizer , a VR color-
based synthesizer that uses Machine Learning to map colors
scanned in a VR environment to a large variety of timbres. In
AirPiano, the simulation of the real functioning and haptic
feedback of a real piano keyboard is simulated inside a virtual
environment. VRMin  is a VR augmentation for the Theremin.
The principle behind it is similar to the one that is at the basis of
the AR interface design presented here: the virtual representation
in space of the interactive areas is used in order to increase the
playing precision. Contrarily to the AR design for interfaces
described in this paper, VRMin is in VR, i.e. the real instrument
is not visible. Additionally, VRMin could be considered more as
a learning tool than a performance tool.
Music education has also been considered for interactive AR
applications featuring interfaces. In particular, the piano has
attracted numerous researchers, e.g. in –. A quite
recurrent strategy is the piano roll (or VR/AR MIDI roll),
consisting in moving virtual blocks indicating the keys to press
with the right timing.
Numerous applications have also been developed for live
performance. LINEAR is a tool for generating interfaces-
notation hybrids in real-time (the trajectory of the gesture to
perform is indicated by virtual bodies that produce the intended
resulting sounds when “hit” by the performer). That is one of the
first examples of accurate space sampling, where the exact
position of interaction can be easily determined and used as a
technical and expressive resource. In  a Virtual Instrument
for sound spatialization is described. The tool allows one to draw
trajectories in the air (with embedded speed information) and
place sound sources on those trajectories. The position over time
of those sound sources is then simulated by a n-channel audio
system. A. Brandon’s Augmented Percussion (2019) is a
composition where a marimba is augmented by placing virtual
objects around it. Some of them are also embedded in the body
of the instrument. Those objects are used to manipulate the
processing of the marimba’s sound. G. Santini’s Portale is a
composition for tam-tam, AR environment and live-electronics
where virtual interfaces, AR augmentation and AR gesture-
based notation are featured. Furthermore, the composition is
articulated around different interaction possibilities between the
real performer and a protagonist Virtual Object. Innovative
solutions have been also explored for the audience, conceiving
AR not only as a tool for the user/performer but also as a visually
expressive component for an audience. Among the most
interesting solutions, remarkable is the use of holographic film
for giving a hologram-like perception without the use of headsets
for the audience , . The creation of innovative
performance formats created for an AR fruition by people on
their mobile devices has also been experimented: AR-ia  is a
system for generating 3D live figures for the live rendering of an
AR opera on high-end mobile phones.
All the mentioned explorations show a progressively
developing panorama, where experiments contribute, year by
year, to the development of best practices. This paper contributes
by describing different design solutions for AR piano
augmentation, a topic that still needs to be explored in depth.
The composition Studi sulla realtà nuova has been developed for
a combination of hardware and software components. Beyond the
traditional audio equipment (such as microphones, speakers and pc),
the environment requires:
• One non-see-through Head Mounted Display (HMD)1;
• One stereo VR front-facing camera2;
• 3 motion capture trackers (one for detecting the position
of the piano, the other two for the hands of the performer)3;
• Software developed in Unity 3D for AR rendering and
interaction; through Open Sound Control (OSC), sends
• Ableton Live making use of custom Max Effects (created
through Max for Live) and software synthesizers and
The point of view of the performer can be mirrored to a projector, in
order to share the AR view with the audience.
2. DIFFERENT TYPES OF INTERFACES
The interfaces used in Studi sulla realtà nuova can be divided
into 4 different categories.
The simplest form of AR interface is constituted by isolated virtual
objects that can be used for triggering one specific action (a processing
preset, a sample etc.).
1 HTC Vive Pro headset.
2 ZED Mini, providing a better quality and a shorter latency than
the headset’s original front-facing VR cameras.
3 Vive Trackers.
The interface in Figures 1-2 consist in a sphere that can be
activated with a gaze interaction: a smaller sphere, followed by
a tail particle effect (with blue and light blue particles in figure
1-2), indicates the center of the point of view of the performer,
facilitating the right orientation of the performer’s head. A
raycaster4 is used for determining whether an interaction with
the interface occurred (if the raycaster intersects its surface, the
virtual object is activated). A sort of explosion is used as a visual
feedback for the performer and as an expressive idea for the
audience, who can relate the visual effect to a modification in the
musical content (in this case, a chord is changed in the software
In another case, a water-like surface, “submerging” the
keyboard, is used for triggering the next spectral delay preset in
a Max for Live effect.
The object is activated when a hand emerges from the water
(the hands’ position is detected through the trackers). The visual
feedback is delivered through the creation of reflections
simulating some water’s undulatory motion.
The dimension of the interface is disproportioned to its limited
effect: a one-action trigger could have fitted a much smaller
space. However, in this case, the design has privileged the scenic
4 A test of intersection with surfaces. In this case, a straight line
sent from the center of the point of view towards infinite in the
direction of the gaze.
Figure 1. A virtual interface (green sphere) used for
Figure 2. Visual feedback of the gaze interaction.
Figure 3. Water-like surface/interface
and visually expressive quality over the functionality (the
interface is designed for the audience’s point of view).
2.2 Multi-dimensional sliders
Another way to design a virtual interface is to map coordinates in
one, two, or three dimensions in space to a continuum/multiple
continua of values used for controlling parameters, parameters’ groups
and interpolated presets. Rotation values can be used for gaining an
additional set of three dimensions (x, y and z axis values).
In Studi sulla realtà nuova, a tracker is used to access the cartesian
coordinates of the hand’s position5 in space, the Euler angles of its
rotation over three axis and the rotation Quaternion (a vector
constituted by one real and three complex numbers used for encoding
rotations in 3D space).
Therefore, it is possible to use data gathered from the tracker sensor
for controlling multi-dimensional sliders. Those kinds of virtual
interfaces are activated when the performer’s hands enter inside the
portion of space occupied by the virtual body. Upon activation,
positional data are used to control the audio software. When the
performers’ hands are outside of the interface, positional data are not
For the interface in Figure 5, the x-axis (left-right) is used for pitch
(quantized to 12-tone equal temperament, indicated by the frets), y-
axis (down-up) for microtonal tuning and z-axis for loudness (rear-
front). The rotation of the hand around the z-axis is used for controlling
a low pass filtering cutoff frequency.
2.3 Composite interfaces
A more articulated way for augmenting the piano in Studi sulla
realtà nuova consists in creating a composite interface
constituted by a series of interactive points in space (triggers)
and/or interactive portions of space (sliders). Those single
objects are then arranged around the instrument. By delivering a
larger set of input points, a composite interface lets the
interpreter completely control the electronics processing,
without the need of any external help (e.g. for triggering live-
5 More precisely, the local position, i. e., the position respect to
the central point of the interface.
The use of this kind of interface can also allow a new degree
of virtuosity, as the different virtual bodies can be used and seen
as additional parts of the instrument itself, exactly located in
space, with which the composer can require an accurate and
virtuosic interaction over time.
The interface in Figure 6 is composed by a series of triggers
(green and light blue bodies, arranged around the instrument)
and a 1D slider (the light blue body, positioned perpendicularly
over the keyboard) modifying the intonation of a chorus effect.
2.4 Interface-notation hybrid
Multiple virtual bodies can also be positioned along a trajectory
in space and their appearance can be consecutively delayed so
that the required speed for following the trajectory is also
suggested. In this case, a 4D (3D space + time) indication of the
gesture to perform is carried out by virtual objects which, at the
same time, can be assigned to some control actions. We can call
interface-notation hybrid such a combination of gestural
information and control interface.
In figure 7, the performer follows the trajectory indicated by
the virtual bodies and hit the string at the end of such a trajectory.
The speed of movement suggested by the consecutive
appearance of the virtual spheres is also an indication of loudness
of the final string hit. At the same time, when the hand passes
through the position of the virtual bodies, it destroys those
objects and triggers sound samples, except for the last body (the
nearest to the piano strings) which triggers the new preset for a
combination of chorus, granular synthesis and spectral delay.
The disposition in space of the bodies indicates a gesture to
perform. That gesture, once performed, leads, on one side, to hit
the string with a certain speed (therefore loudness), on the other
side, it produces sounds on its own because of the samples
triggered by the virtual bodies. The movement, even before
hitting the string, is, by itself, finalized to the production of
Figure 4. Visual feedback of the interaction
Figure 5. A multidimensional slider, shaped as a block
of ice, with frets for different notes.
Figure 6. An example of composite AR inteface.
Figure 7. An interface-notation hybrid. The performer is
starting following the trajectory which will end on piano
strings in the middle register (meant to be hit with the
sound. Therefore, the placement of virtual bodies notates the
position in space both for virtual and for real sound-generating
hits. Consequently, while being interfaces, the virtual bodies also
constitute a form of (gesture-based) notation.
The interface-notation hybrid can be also generated by the
performer, through his/her own gestures. In this case, virtual
bodies are instantiated at regular time intervals along the
trajectory created by the performer before hitting the string.
3. THE SCORE
Beyond interface-notation hybrids, Studi sulla realtà nuova
requires the use of traditional notation. In those cases, a 2D score
needs to be used. As the performer is wearing a headset, such a
need poses some problems.
In fact, the HTC Vive Pro delivers visuals rendered on screens
(one per eye) of the real world through the front-facing cameras.
Consequently, the resolution of camera and screens is crucial.
The camera provides a 720p per-eye resolution, which makes
reading real scores quite problematic (lack of visual clarity). A
virtual body rendered directly on the screens (bypassing the
resolution limits of the VR cameras) reaches a 1600x1440 per-
Therefore, the score is not printed but is visualized inside the
AR environment as a virtual body (virtual score). More
precisely, each page of the score is used as the texture of a virtual
rectangle (plane). Every time a page is turned, the next page’s
picture is loaded as the new texture. Pages can be turned by using
a dedicated interface near to the score.
Figure 8. The score in the Unity Editor
The presented interfaces for piano augmentation have been
developed as a compositional resource for this specific project,
not as a tool for being used by other composers in a more general
capacity. From the author’s point of view, this is not a limit, but
rather a particularity of AR applications for musical
performance: designing an AR interface is relatively time-
inexpensive compared to the construction of a physical one,
where, beyond the software development, the assembly of
hardware components comes into play. AR technology provides
a fast and intuitive way to design interfaces, making it easier to
conceive them as a component of the compositional process (i.e.,
a set of interfaces is created for only one composition and
designed depending on the specific musical context).
The clear visual presence in space makes any form of
augmentation more intuitive to approach for a performer, who
does not necessarily have to memorize positions in space or
specific movements. Additionally, if provided with haptic
wearable devices, virtual bodies can be associated with a tactile
feedback, thus enhancing immersivity.
A major advantage of a virtual AR interface over a real one
consists in its possibility to change over time. Changes might
include functions, shape, position in space, appearing and
disappearing. Especially for composite interfaces, the
arrangement of triggers and sliders can be changed over time,
according to the most comfortable position for playing both the
piano keys and the virtual objects. Again, the visual presence of
such objects makes it easier to provide indications for the
interpreter and allows more articulated designs strategies without
increasing the steepness of the learning curve for the performer.
In fact, while a similar set of possibilities could be available by
just using sensors and software implementations (with no AR
components), the player would need to memorize the different
functions and actions/positions of interaction, with no obvious
indication in time and space.
With the use of interface-notation hybrids, the gestural
components of the composition can be designed and
choregraphed and the gesture itself finds a new possibility of
All the presented interfaces are relatively simple to use and do
not include advanced functionalities in terms of gesture
recognition and analysis of the physical movement (e.g., linking
specific shapes of the gesture to some specific dynamic/spectral
outcome). In this sense, the kind of augmentation presented here
is not as developed as a fully-fledged Digital Instrument or
Hyperinstrument could be. However, articulated practices can be
recovered through a high accuracy in spatial interaction: thanks
to the visual feedback, the composer can require to the performer
to narrowly differentiate interaction between close points in
The mirroring to a projector of the point of view of the player
poses interesting questions about the interface design from the
audience perspective. In fact, the visual dimension itself
becomes an element to develop in time and to compose, along
with the interaction and its graphic feedback. Interfaces for
instrumental augmentation are not only important for their
functional capacity but can also be considered and designed as a
visual component of a multimedia composition.
In some future work, an evaluation of the composition with
several performers could be valuable for developing more
effective design strategies.
This article has presented some possibilities of design for
interfaces in AR, meant as a form of instrumental augmentation.
The mentioned interfaces can be of four kinds: object-triggers,
multi-dimensional sliders, composite interfaces, interface-
The visual presence in space of such augmenting virtual
devices allows a better-than-before space resolution for mapping
position-dependent functions without requiring any
memorization process. The precision of the space sampling
allows more virtuosic ways of interaction and the indication of
gestures to perform in 3 dimensions. The resulting piano
augmentation makes the input points look and behave like a
physical extension of the piano.
The flexibility of design in AR is one of the most promising
characteristics: interfaces can be modified over time (in position,
appearance and function), and such changes can be made
The need to also consider the visual quality of AR in music
performance from the audience’s point of view potentially has a
deep impact on the work of a composer making use of such a
technology. In fact, interactions, visual feedbacks, interfaces
behavior and gestural quality of virtual bodies also have the
potential to carry an expressive visual component which can be
developed and composed in time as much as the sonic
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